If you are over 50, you’ve entered a new phase of your life. It’s time for colonoscopy. And just what is your doctor looking for in there? The presence of polyps. You’ve likely heard of them, but may not know exactly what they are and what it means to have them.
A polyp, simply put, is an abnormal growth of tissue. It can occur on any mucous membrane in your body, but let’s focus on one type: abnormal tissue growth in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Colon polyps are the most common; stomach polyps are rare.
Colon Polyp Symptoms
A colon polyp may not produce any symptoms. On rare occasions, patients may experience rectal bleeding, pain, diarrhea and constipation associated with the presence of colon polyps.
When you turn 50, your risk increases, so your doctor will recommend regular colon screenings to detect abnormalities. Aside from a family history of colon cancer or polyps, there is no single type of person who is at greater risk. However, your risk increases with age, if you’re overweight or you smoke, and if you eat a high-fat, low-fiber diet.
Variations and Detection
There are different varieties of polyps. A pedunculated polyp is attached to the lining of the colon by a stalk. A sessile polyp has no stalk and is attached directly to the surface. Methods of detecting colon polyps include a digital rectal examination, a sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscopy.
Early Detection and Next Steps
You may be concerned about discomfort or embarrassment during a colon screening, but those are temporary feelings. The long-term benefits of detection far outweigh these short-term issues. Additionally, polyps may indicate the presence of other types of cancer in the body. So it’s best to know early.
If your colon screening reveals polyp growth, the next step is removal, which must be done by colonoscopy, either at the time of the initial screening, or during a follow up. During your colonoscopy, a long, flexible tube with a tiny camera at the tip enters the rectum, allowing your doctor to view the surface of the colon. Polyps or other kinds of abnormal tissue can be removed through the scope upon detection. Tissue samples may be taken, and they will be sent to the lab for classification.
Types of Colon Polyps
The majority of colon polyps are benign; which means that they are not cancer, they don’t spread and can usually be removed easily.
Non-malignant polyps that might be found include:
- Inflammatory or Pseudopolyps are actually a local reaction to chronic inflammation. These may be isolated or found in people with inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
- Hyperplastic polyps are usually very small and have a low risk of turning into cancer.
- Tubular adenoma or adenomatous polyps are the most common and have a definite risk of turning into cancer, which increases with the size of the adenoma.
- Villous or Tubulovillous adenomas are less common, but carry a much higher risk of cancer. They are usually larger and not on a stem (sessile), making them more difficult to remove.
While colon cancer is not typically found in polyps measuring less than 2.5 cm, the surgeon will remove any polyps she finds to reduce the likelihood of colon cancer developing. When cancerous polyps are removed, you need to stay vigilant and get another colonoscopy in three to five years.